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(New York) – A groundbreaking global treaty on the rights of domestic workers goes into legal effect on September 5, 2013, offering vital protections to millions of workers around the world, Human Rights Watch said today. Governments should promptly act to ratify and enforce the Convention concerning Decent Work for Domestic Workers (the Domestic Workers Convention), Human Rights Watch said.

The Domestic Workers Convention, No. 189, adopted by International Labour Organization (ILO) members in 2011, sets standards for the estimated 50 to 100 million domestic workers worldwide – mostly women and girls – who perform essential household work in private homes. These workers cook, clean, and provide care for children and the elderly, but in many countries are excluded from basic labor law protections. Domestic workers face a wide range of human rights violations, including excessive working hours without rest, non-payment of wages, forced confinement, physical and sexual abuse, forced labor, and trafficking.

“Domestic workers are among the most abused and exploited workers in the world,” said Gauri van Gulik, women’s rights advocate at Human Rights Watch. “With the Domestic Workers Convention now coming into effect, millions of women and girls will have a chance for safer working conditions and better lives.”

Under the treaty, domestic workers are entitled to protections available to other workers, including weekly days off, limits to hours of work, and minimum wage and social security coverage. The convention obligates governments to protect domestic workers from violence and abuse, and to prevent child labor in domestic work. It also requires governments to ensure that domestic work by children above the minimum age of employment does not deprive them of compulsory education or interfere with opportunities to participate in further education or vocational training.

Since the treaty was adopted in 2011, more than 30 countries have enacted crucial law reforms to better protect domestic workers, such as limits on working hours, access to social security and maternity benefits, minimum wage guarantees, overtime pay, and other basic labor rights.

“Dozens of countries have strengthened labor protections for domestic workers in recent years,” van Gulik said. “Although these reforms are very encouraging, we are still a long way from ensuring that all domestic workers enjoy basic labor rights.”

As of September 2013, 8 countries have led the way by ratifying the Domestic Workers Convention – Bolivia, Italy, Mauritius, Nicaragua, Paraguay, Philippines, South Africa, and Uruguay. Others are taking steps towards ratification. As the treaty enters into force, countries that have ratified are now bound to implement its obligations.

Human Rights Watch has investigated conditions for domestic workers in over 20 countries around the world, documenting routine exclusions from national labor law, exploitation, and labor and criminal abuses. Domestic workers who are children – nearly 30 percent of the total – and migrants are often the most vulnerable to abuse and exploitation, Human Rights Watch said.

“Many children working in private homes are denied their wages, deprived of education, and abused and overworked by their employers,” said Jo Becker, children’s rights advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. “Governments have an obligation to help these children by ratifying the Domestic Workers Convention.”

Migrant domestic workers are often at heightened risk of exploitation due to excessive recruitment fees, language barriers, and national policies that link workers’ immigration status to individual employers. Human Rights Watch has documented abuses against migrant domestic workers, including beatings, confiscation of passports, confinement to the home, overlong working hours with no days off, and in some cases, months or years of unpaid wages. The Domestic Workers Convention includes specific provisions to protect migrant domestic workers, including requirements to regulate private employment agencies, investigate complaints, and prohibit the practice of deducting from domestic workers’ salaries to pay recruitment fees.

“Many migrant domestic workers are isolated in private homes, facing heightened risk of abuse but few legal protections,” van Gulik said. “This treaty can change lives by helping domestic workers do their jobs in safety and dignity – and reach help when they are abused.”

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